On Starting at a New Parish (AFR Podcast and Notes)

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Review: Ten (Eleven!) Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation

In a previous post and podcast, I reviewed Rev. Lawrence W. Farris’ book Ten Commandments for Pastors Leaving a Congregation. It was full of good advice to help set your successor and the parish you are leaving up for success and ensure that you are ready to hit the ground running in your new assignment. In this post and podcast, I review his book on how to actually hit the ground running (and win the race!), Ten Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation (Erdmans, 2003). A mentor gave me this book when I started my first assignment and I found it invaluable; I suspect that even veteran priests will find it useful, even if it only reminds them of lessons they have already learned.

I.  Thou Shalt Be a Cultural Historian.

For the sake of the Gospel, Saint Paul became all things to all men (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In order for him to do this, he had to first empty himself (kenosis) and then learn about the people he was trying to evangelize. Priests, whether they are being assigned to missions or established parishes, are called to evangelize the people in the nave. In addition to reminding pastors new to a parish (hereafter referred to as “new pastors/priests”, despite the ambiguity) that they need to be adaptable, Rev. Lawrence provides some tips on how to learn about the parish. These include written histories (Orthodox parishes are great at publishing books on big anniversaries), talking to the “Old Timers”, and hosting functions designed to elicit stories about the past.

Learning how the parish has dealt with previous priests helps new priests anticipate their reaction to him; it also alerts him to divisive issues within the community’s past, which families lined up on each side, and how active the cleavages are now.   Highlighting good things from the parish’s past to elucidate points in homilies doesn’t just help explain new concepts using familiar ones, it helps build a sense of communal pride and identity. In difficult parishes, this may take some framing; but there is nothing wrong with being charitable about people’s intentions. In addition, frank use of bad things from the parish’s past can also be useful.

The most important point is that a priest that knows all the contours of the parish’s past and present is like a doctor who has mastered a patient’s physical state and medical history; he is far more capable of healing – and evangelizing – them.

II.  Thou Shalt Spend Thy Blue-Chips-for-Change on Changes That Matter.

The last commandment begged the question of where the limits of adaptation should be. While Orthodoxy offers clear definitions of the line beyond which there be dragons, there is a lot of freedom here to find the best course. Discussions about what the right balance or trajectory looks like are sure to elicit almost at least as many opinions as there are people in the room. In this chapter, Rev. Lawrence reminds pastors that Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for tithing mint, dill, and cumin, but neglecting justice, mercy, and faith. (St. Matthew 23:23) and makes a very good point: it is wise to pick your battles. Good pastors are “change-agents”, not maintainers of the status quo. The trick is to know the parish well enough to come up with a strategy (to include a series of tactics) that will move the parish “towards greater faithfulness through the thoughtful and creative blending of our own gifts and talents with those of the congregation.” Too often, (well-intentioned!) priests waste effort on the wrong battles, creating a situation that ends up even worse than the old status quo. Parish histories are also littered with stories of priests that pushed too hard or at the wrong time, leaving wounds that fester for generations and a reinforced bias against change. On the other hand, there are far too many priests that refuse to challenge their parishes at all. Even in difficult parishes, pastors can frame cherished traditions in such a way as to garner support for movement forward. If the priest is careful, judicious, and successful in implementing change, he will earn more “blue chips” for future attempts – after a suitable recovery period.

III. Thou Shall Attend to Thy Preaching

It is amazing how many things vie for new priest’s attention. There is a big temptation to get to this last – or to just dust-off old homilies, but this is a huge disservice to the community. As Rev. Lawrence points out, the homily is the one chance the pastor has to reach most of the people he serves and they deserve his best effort. He argues that the pastor is the only one called to give the homily and that the service in which it is typically delivered, Sunday morning, is the last thing even a dying parish would ever give up. This logic shows that the Third Commandment must be interpreted more broadly for the Orthodox priest: he must attend not just to his preaching, but the quality of worship, and his commitment to the Sacraments.   Homily prep takes a lot of time… but so does preparation for presiding at the Eucharist. Neither can or should be rushed, much less skipped.

IV.  Thou Shalt Be Certain the Church’s Financial House Is in Order.

Rev. Lawrence writes; “Congregations are often funny about money. Where it comes from, where it goes, who gives how much, what is the place of special offerings and special funds… these are all questions that are best asked before a pastor begins a new position, and must certainly be answered soon thereafter.” “Funny” may not be the first word that springs to mind, but it’s hard to disagree with the point. The amount of dues, dues vs. tithes, charges for services (!), the appropriateness of keeping double books (!!), priestly compensation (automatic yearly COLA’s or not?); any of these topics (and there are more) are like chum for board and parish meetings. While there are some things that are clearly beyond the pale (ideally these are described in diocesan rules), every priest has to figure out where his red lines are and stand by them (integrity matters!). Odds are, the cultural attitude towards money in the parish is unhealthy and harming the spiritual growth of the parish (if not its very existence). New priests need to figure out where the parish finances and financial culture are and come up with a plan for moving them in a better direction. Rev. Lawrence stresses the importance of openness and modern practices (I recommend ChurchTrac.com) and recommends starting an endowment. I also recommend classes on Stewardship using Fr. Robert Holet’s book The First and Finest: Orthodox Christian Stewardship as Sacred Offering.

V.  Thou Shalt Not Create Expectations Which Cannot be Met in the Long Term.

Everything we do has to be sustainable. There is little worse than raising expectations and then failing to deliver. Pastors are not always the best at figuring this is out on their own; this is why so many of us have wives!   Adding services and classes to the schedule are wonderful for outreach and fostering spiritual development in the parish, but not if they take away from something even more essential. In addition, Rev. Lawrence stresses that boundaries MUST be established and defended. There are people in every parish that will expect more than is reasonable; it is okay (and often required) to say “no.” We have to set boundaries. Priests must be confident in their calling: the priest that tries to prove his adequacy through over-scheduling is falling into a trap.

VI.  Thou Shalt Take Care of Thyself from Day One.

In the Army, soldiers are taught to take good care of their equipment. While this does foster a culture of discipline and attention detail, the primary purpose of a regular schedule of maintenance is even more obvious: functioning equipment is necessary to fulfill the mission. Even troops are treated with this kind of care because commanders recognize that without healthy soldiers very little can get done. It is amazing that the Church does not adequately instill this attitude into her clergy.

As Rev. Lawrence writes, referring to the Jesus’ recitation of the Shema Israel (St. Mark 12:29-30); “The elements of the self as Scripture understands it – heart, soul, mind, strength – are the tools with which we fulfill Jesus’ command to love God with all that we are. If these tools are not maintained, our capacity to love God is diminished, no matter how good and honorable our intentions.”

As with preventive maintenance in the military, we need established routines of spiritual, mental, and physical self-care that are all but inviolate. Yes, there will be times (Clean Week, Holy Week, Feast Days) when our schedules are disrupted – but just as soldiers clean their equipment as soon as the deployment is over, we have to get right back into our habits that cultivate healthy “minds, bodies, and souls.”

All of us know what this looks like (after all, we advise others to do it), but few of us (myself included) are consistent in its application, especially when it comes to our physical and mental health. One thing Rev. Lawrence stresses – and it is one GGWB is founded on – is the need to cultivate relationships with other priests, not just as confessors, but as genuine colleagues and, Lord willing, trusted confidants, accountability partners, and friends. The bottom line is that this has to be done (Lord willing, this is a topic that will get its own set of podcasts).

VII. Thou Shalt Be Aware of the Chronics.

There are dissatisfied people everywhere, to include in the healthiest of parishes. Because we are servants, there is an intellectual temptation to assume that all complaints are real … but they aren’t (although they are always evidence of something). It is an even worse temptation – this time an intellectual and moral one – to assume that and that it was the last guy’s fault for failing to meet their “obvious” needs. This becomes prelest when we then believe that we are the ones that can make everything right (note that habitual complainers are often manipulative and may even be “church antagonists”; more on that in the future, Lord willing). The chronic complainer is a time sink with little – or even negative – return. Everyone needs to be served, but we have to be aware that the possibility exists that alleged “service” is actually enabling or fostering co-dependency. If we are watchful, we will soon be able to discern, ideally with the help of our mentors and colleagues, the difference between 1) genuine complaints that we can address 2) genuine complaints that we must refer elsewhere and 3) chronic complaints that must be dealt with through strict boundaries.

VIII. Thou Shalt Limit Thy Activities beyond the Congregation That Has Called You.

New pastors will probably be surprised how many opportunities come up when they are first assigned. Almost all of them will be defensible. College ministry? It’s for the children! Guest speaking? It’s proclaiming the Gospel! Ecumenical work? It’s finding common ground and sharing the fullness of the faith with the heterodox! The list goes on and on. New pastors have to weigh the costs and benefits of each opportunity, to include its sustainability. Pastors have a lot on their plate trying to understand their new assignment and meet the needs of their parishes. It is true that we are called to serve communities, not just parishes, but I am willing to bet bishops (and parishes) have clear expectations about the proportion of our time that should be spent doing things that will directly grow their parishes (both spiritually and otherwise). Sometimes, this will actually require specific sorts of outside activities, but for the most part, it is true that; “there will always be plenty to do within that congregation [to which we are called], tasks that should not be neglected even for worthy causes in the larger community. Again, mentors and bishops are excellent guides when finding the right balance.

IX.  Thou Shalt Remember What Thy Job Is.

Pastors are called to proclaim the Gospel (in word and deed), be the resident theologian, and to “equip the people to carry out those ministries suited to their gifts, individually and collectively.”   Anything that gets added to that list (to include mowing the lawn, emptying trashcans, folding bulletins, and setting up tables) detracts from that calling and deprives others of opportunities to serve. This can be especially problematic for priests that succeeding priests that had tried to do everything; Rev. Lawrence points out that such priests will have to be clear and firm about what his ministry is about. Priests – and their Pani’s – in mission settings will end up doing pretty much everything in the early stages of the growth cycle; but they should have a plan for disentangling themselves as soon as possible (a difficult thing to do for some of us!) or risk stunting the growth of the parish.

Rev. Lawrence also points out that pastors need to be careful about the image they cultivate. One of the most important things leaders do is shape the culture of their organizations. A leader that does not project confidence will foster a culture of confusion; in parishes, this is a recipe for disaster. This is not to say that all pastors need to have the same leadership style! While some styles are counter-productive no matter how confidently they are presented (here I would include “one of the guys”, “martyr to the parish/board/bishop/choir”, and “you should be like me”), priests should find the style that 1) is a rough match for their temperament and 2) is useful for the development of their churches. All such approaches have the same basic job description, but a confident priest with a healthy approach will foster a healthy parish culture that will naturally glorify God.

X.  Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.

Clergy have to keep their pants up, period. It is hard to hear, but good men – perhaps even better men than us – have given into this temptation. We can’t assume that our dedication to Christ, our marriages, and keeping out of public scandals will be enough to protect us. We have to make sure that we build habits that minimize our vulnerability (e.g. no private meetings). This is reinforced by the fact that it isn’t enough to avoid doing anything improper; even the accusation of an impropriety is enough to damage our parishes and ruin our ability to serve as priests.

However, Rev. Lawrence is not really writing about sex, he’s writing about the kind of adultery Israel committed in the Old Testament. He warns the reader not to engage in behavior that is partisan or that would serve as a stumbling block to anyone else. Ministers get invited to a lot of events and have the opportunity to join many clubs and the like. Most are probably fine, but they have to be careful when they give the ministerial imprimaturthat their very presence will provide in the eyes of others. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, pastors are free to do many things, but not all of them are useful (and the standard of utility is the effect it will have on others).

Another time this comes up is in parish administration. One of the benefits of having lay people involved in ministry is that they bring valuable skills and experience to the table. Unfortunately, they do not always bring discernment. This results in ideas (e.g. for fundraising and worship schedules) that are, to use Rev. Lawerence’s term, adulterous. The priest is responsible for setting the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the parish and he has to take that responsibility seriously (ideally, in consultation with mentors and his bishop). Priests in parishes where adulterous activity has long been the norm will need to develop a plan to change that and the culture that has grown around it.

XI.  Thou Shalt Seek Out the Mentorship and Fellowship of Other Pastors.

“Priests need priests.” The priesthood is often stressful and difficult. Having a good mentor (or two or three) will help; a reliably, trustworthy, and wise spiritual father will too. It’s hard for pastors to have friends; most of the people they spend time with have to be kept at arm’s length. Developing good relations with local ministers – even non-Orthodox ones – helps fill in that gap. Not only do they have similar challenges, ministers often share common personal interests and hobbies. Pastors that build a network of mentors, colleagues, and friends with other ministers will be more effective, resilient, and joyful.